From: Kerry Olitzky To: Stephen Schwartz Subject: Inclusion—It’s That Simple. Stephen,
An “inclusive” Jewish community would accept those who cast their lot with the Jewish people. This includes interfaith families who would otherwise be excluded.
Of course, there must be limits to our openness. And while I personally have a rather liberal notion of what it means to become Jewish, I am mindful of the importance of societal norms and consensus on the process of conversion.
But even if family members don’t “become Jewish,” we should be prepared to welcome them into the Jewish community. Jewish tradition acknowledges a place for those who journey with the Jewish people, calling them “gerei toshav.” I am not sure this term is still appropriate, but it does indicate that a posture of openness permeated even the ancient and rabbinic Jewish communities. And we should remember that those who cast their lot with the Jewish people also demonstrate a great openness.
The rabbis commonly identify Ruth—a convert—as the best example of a non-Jew who joined the Jews. But there was little debate when Moses married a non-Jew (the daughter of Jethro, a priest of Midian) or when Esther’s marriage to Achashverosh saved the Jews of ancient Persia.
If we are speaking of those with interfaith parents, it is more appropriate to refer to them as possessing “multiple identities,” rather than being of a “mixed background.” Nevertheless, in my experience—and this is backed up by demographic studies—most so-called interfaith marriages are really not “interfaith” at all. As Rabbi Harold Schulweis quipped, they are “interfaithless.”
Such families generally practice American civil religion. They might also observe a smattering of residual religious practices, such as putting up a Christmas tree and Hanukkah menorah, or having a Passover seder and an Easter egg hunt.
I may not prefer to see such practices coincide in one family, but I also realize that just as a Hannukah menorah does not a Jewish identity make, neither does a Christmas tree make a Christian—as difficult as it may be for Jews to see beyond it.
In your various examples of those who “want to become Jewish,” I see evidence of the unique way in which Jews have assimilated into American culture. While most peoples lose their identity when they acculturate, the American Jewish community has not. We have held onto much of our minority culture, and we’ve made it attractive to those in the majority. Shall we now embrace these people? Do we “need” them, as you put it?
We do need them, and we should embrace them. There are many reasons to do so, both self-interested and not.
In my first e-mail to you I mentioned my ideological commitment to “Big Tent Judaism.” This is in part because, when I was a rabbinical student, my teacher Jacob Rader Marcus charged me with making up for the catastrophic losses of the Holocaust. This is an impossible task, but I work at it nonetheless.
We are now an aging people that is not reproducing itself. Welcoming interfaith families will not only stop our demographic decline, it will actually help to grow the Jewish community.
There is also a Zionist argument: the survival of the state of Israel is dependent, in part, on the largesse of the United States. The American Jewish community helps secure this largesse, and its influence is in some ways dependent on its size.
There are few American Jewish families that have not been impacted by intermarriage. A self-interested community cannot exclude them. A welcoming and tolerant community would not want to.